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March 2010

H. E. (Doc) Evatt was one of Australia's foremost thinkers and politicians. While he was a judge on the High Court of Australia, he turned his mind to one of the most controversial cases of labour law, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The case of the 6 Dorsetshire labourers, sentenced to transportation to Australia in the 1830s for swearing a secret oath, has been a touchstone for the union movement. It demonstrated the landed gentry's fear of the power of the combined might of workers and the lengths to which they would go to quash it.

Evatt's aim was to reconsider the evidence, case law and legislation used, and decide if a miscarriage of justice had occurred. He decided that while there was no technical breach of law, "oppression and cruelty do not always fail". Although the men were eventually pardoned, their lives were ruined, their families broken up and they never returned to England.

Evatt's book has been re-released by Sydney University Press in conjunction with the Evatt Foundation. The Evatt Foundation secured Geoffrey Robertson to write a new introduction to the book, highlighting its relevance for Australia today. Robertson likens this case to Australia's need for a Bill of Rights - we don't know how the law can be used against us, and unless we have certain rights enshrined we are all in danger of exploitation.

The book was reviewed in the Spectrum section of the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 20th March 2010.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs: injustice within the law

“Do you mind working for a German?” asked the blond thirty something man with a piercing blue stare. I was at a job interview. It happened a few years ago in Australia, thousands of miles away from Europe and over half-a-century after the end of the Second World War.

It was an unexpected question in the context of a Sydney suburb, but not entirely. I am Polish and the history of Polish–German/Germanic relationships is full of wars and battles stretching over a thousand years. Consciously or not, people carry historical knowledge as part of their identity, and this legacy affects how various communities and individuals have interacted with each other over the years.